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How about less lipstick and some more jungle?

NBC's new offering hides the mean streak in the modern, multidimensional, high-powered woman.

February 07, 2008|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

What to say about "Lipstick Jungle" when the title alone says it all? Power babes duking it out in the big city (because, presumably, if they were rural power babes, lipstick wouldn't figure in so heavily). Me, I'm not so crazy about reducing an entire gender, particularly my own, to a cosmetic. And as for "jungle," well, there's only one power species in the jungle, and that's a cat, a metaphor that just doesn't seem terribly modern, does it?

Granted, there wasn't much NBC could do, since "Lipstick Jungle" was adapted from a novel of the same name, written by Candace Bushnell, who created the newspaper column "Sex and the City," which became that HBO series we've all heard so much about. Why mess with a proven brand?

Well, because "Lipstick Jungle" is to "Sex and the City" what New Coke was to Coca-Cola -- a brand extension best forgotten. Whereas "Sex and the City" minted a genuine, shiny, new modern heroine -- the sexually active, sexually explicit but still romantic good girl -- "Lipstick Jungle" is content to play dress-up with a bunch of frayed-at-the-edges paper dolls. Here's Wendy Healy (Brooke Shields), the nicest movie executive you'll ever meet (she doesn't even swear), dutifully struggling to fill her roles as deal maker, mommy, wife and BFF. Needless to say, she's on the phone a lot.

Working in the same media empire is Nico Reilly (Kim Raver), editor in chief of a hot fashion magazine (is there any other type of magazine these days?). She has a boring college professor husband, a scheming male rival and a nasty male boss (so nasty, in fact, that he tells her straight out that he hopes she will ignore her biological clock because having children makes women lose their focus). All of which puts poor Nico under so much pressure she barely finds time to have an affair with a hot young photographer's assistant, who is (because Nico somehow avoided all those sexual harassment management seminars) working for her.

Meanwhile, the third musketeer, Victory Ford (Lindsay Price), is experiencing a career free fall. Once the hottest (there's that word again) designer around, she's yesterday's news, trying to regain her footing while figuring out how to cope with her latest beau -- Joe Bennett, a semi-reclusive billionaire played by Andrew McCarthy. Who is by far the best thing in the "Jungle."

Right about here is where this review should compare "Lipstick Jungle" with "Cashmere Mafia," the other power-dame drama that premiered midseason. But there is no comparison because, while "Mafia" is clearly having fun with its chick-lit roots and Jimmy Choo references, "Jungle" is strangely earnest. The creators seem to think their show is saying something new, only it's not really clear what that is. That women can be just as power hungry or libidinous as men? Or female friendship trumps every other relationship save motherhood? Or it's tough to be a working mother? If this show had run 10 years ago, maybe. But now?

"Jungle" does have a few things going for it that "Mafia" doesn't. Nico is a bit dim when it comes to workplace relationships, but she is not a victim. If anything, she's a victimizer, which gives her character the potential to be a bit deeper than it seems. Likewise McCarthy's Joe seems a tantalizingly flawed man. Although Victory taming him with the lash of female friendship is to be feared, perhaps the opposite will occur, which would be something to cheer for.

Unfortunately, Wendy, which is to say Shields, is the anchor of the show, and she is as tedious as she is unrealistic: a high-powered film executive without an ambitious, controlling or egocentric bone in her body. Reduced to tears, ladies and gentlemen, by the threat of some gossipy nanny diary to be published by a hateful Lucianne Goldberg-wannabe (played by Lorraine Bracco, who is the second best thing in the show).

I know we all love Brooke as she is, and maybe we still feel bad about "Pretty Baby," but how refreshing it would be to see her channel her inner diva for once. Women can be arrogant and still attractive, power-loving and still lovable, deeply flawed and still fascinating. But "Lipstick Jungle" wrongheadedly wants to have it both ways -- to celebrate and explore the lives and loves of women at the top through protagonists who don't have the drive or the depth to make it there.


mary.mcnamara@latimes .com


'Lipstick Jungle'

Where: NBC

When: 10 tonight; regularly 10 p.m. Fridays

Rating: TV-14-DLS (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for coarse language, suggestive dialogue and sex)

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